Yvonne Rainer in conversation with Lynne Tillman

Yvonne Rainer in conversation with Lynne Tillman

yvonne rainer

Yvonne Rainer


Lynne Tillman

Looking back at the legendary NYC artist’s radical, restless filmography.

Yvonne Rainer: A Retrospective streams on Metrograph At Home.

I never saw Yvonne Rainer dance in the flesh, didn’t go to Judson. I started watching her films in the late 1970s, and came to know her from living in NYC and going to screenings and parties.

Sheila McLaughlin and I made a feature film, Committed, which came out in 1984. Yvonne had generously helped fund our very low-budget film.

In 1985 Yvonne and I were invited to be on a conference on narrative and documentary film, which was held at Hunter College. I had never been on a panel and was extremely anxious. It turned out Yvonne was anxious also, which surprised me: she was already so significant in choreography and dance, and had made films that were already influential and important in experimental, independent, and feminist film.

At that time, I didn’t think people of Yvonne Rainer’s stature could be anxious. I knew very little really, just beginning to understand how uncertain making art was, what risks it entailed, and that nothing could ever be guaranteed. Anxiety was, sadly, inevitable, because it was not what you had accomplished, but what you would do next.

I suggested to Yvonne that we meet every week or every other week to discuss our ideas for the panel, and do some reading also. Though Committed had been based on the life of actor Frances Farmer, it was not a documentary. In her films, Yvonne also worked with fictions, and telling stories. We both used fragmentation and other devices, and played with narratives.

At that time, I was seriously opposed to documentaries and their claims to truth. (It’s a much longer theoretical story, and not necessary to tell now, though I believe because of the rigorous critiques of it, documentaries have changed enormously.)

The panel brought Yvonne and me together, as artists and intellectuals and anxious people, and as friends. At first our work was at the center of our relationship, and we could always discuss it honestly. Over the years Yvonne and my friendship has deepened, and we can count on each other. Our friendship has a uniqueness and sweetness to it.

To be friends and a colleague/comrade in arms of Yvonne Rainer is a great honor and pleasure. To say Yvonne is like no one else I know underestimates her originality.—Lynne Tillman

lives of performers

Lives of Performers (1972)

LYNNE TILLMAN: There’s a through line in your films over time, in the sense that they all follow and reflect your thoughts and emotional life. For one thing, your interest in relationships.

YVONNE RAINER: Also my changing political involvements.

LT: Yes. I want to start with Lives Of Performers (1972). You have said that it’s your favorite film.

YR: I may have said that early on. Have I said it after I made seven films? I don’t know, that may be true. I mean, I’m fond of it. That one and the last one, MURDER and murder (1996).

LT: In it, you call them performers rather than dancers.

YR: Some of them were not dancers.

LT: Shirley Soffer.

YR: John Erdman.

LT: The performers discuss what happens between and among them, incidents not on stage, not part of the dance.

YR: I would do things like set them up and have them talk to each other, but not record what they were saying. Then ascribe what I needed from my text and my interests. I wouldn’t include what they were actually talking about. The everyday facial and gestural interactions of people interest me. I didn’t want to give them lines to memorize as if they were actors; I wasn’t working with professional actors, I rarely did.

LT: You used voiceover.

YR: They would read things in voiceover that I had written.

LT: That’s right. And it wasn’t aligned with their speaking.

YR: There is some sync sound.

LT: Since you came out of dance and choreography, did you want their movements to represent psychological states?

YR: No. I should talk about one way I transitioned from dance into film. I was getting involved with feminism and the Vietnam War, and I wanted to deal with specific social, political issues. But I wasn’t making dance that did that. My dances were kind of abstract, or about the interaction of everyday movement and abstract invented movement. So [to achieve] the specificity of current events, to transmit them in language, film seemed to offer more opportunities and devices for dealing with both dance and political issues.

LT: You talk, in some other interviews, about wanting to employ melodrama, but also to separate it from emotionality.

YR: Or the conventions of emotional representation via acting.

LT: Why did you want to do that? What was the aesthetic, what was driving you to avoid or ignore enacted emotion?

YR: I was a movie buff most of my life. Early on I had been exposed to avant-garde films, Maya Deren, and that ilk. But I was also going to Hollywood movies, and I was very aware of why we go to such movies: to lose ourselves in the fabrications and conventions of narrative film. It was an opportunity both to use some of those devices and to disrupt them within the same frame. You begin to lose yourself in what a character is saying, but then, abruptly, there’s a shot of the ocean with a title on it that has nothing to do with what’s to come or what preceded.

LT: Which you refer to as “radical juxtaposition.”

YR: Radical juxtaposition, which is of course Susan Sontag’s formulation, from years ago.

LT: But you use music in Lives Of Performers. It ends with Mick Jagger singing “No Expectations.” [singing] Take me to the station...

YR: Oh, right, right!

LT: And it’s a very dreamy, a very emotional song. You use music that way throughout your work, I think.

YR: Yeah, yeah. So emotion was delivered through other means than traditional Stanislavski-type acting.

LT: It’s very effective.

YR: It’s unexpected, for one thing.

LT: Of course you did that in your dance, too, like using Ike and Tina Turner’s song “River Deep – Mountain High.”

YR: Right.

Film about a woman who

Film About a Woman Who (1974)

LT: Going on to your next film, Film About a Woman Who… (1972-1974), some of the same performers appear in this as in Lives and Performers. Did you think of them like a dance company?

YR: I never thought of having a continuous or coherent company. They were people I knew. I didn’t work consistently enough—if you form a company, you have to keep them occupied. There were four years between each film.

LT: Were you scripting before shooting? There’s a lot of talk in Film About a Woman Who...

YR: It’s all scripted, and they read it. But in the dream sequence, I left it up to Valda [Setterfield] to make it up, and she improvised. But that wasn’t my usual modus operandi. Usually I had them read.

LT: There’s an unusual structural element in Film About a Woman Who... The four main characters are watching what’s happening in the film and to them, or their characters. They’re sitting on a couch. The camera is looking at them, but they’re looking at what we discover are slides. Sometimes the camera is behind them, so we see what they’re seeing. It’s both the first and the only time you do that. How did you come to that, what was your thinking?

YR: It’s another distanciation device. You see the characters watching themselves, or reacting. Sometimes, if you notice, in one of those shots, they have cues to make a small gesture, like lean back, or look at the neighbor, or place a hand on the edge of the couch ... So your focus is on whoever does that, because mainly they’re very still. I shift the focus through these very small gestures. I was involved in various ways of using them as both spectators and actors.

LT: It’s a trope throughout the film, and is its strongest narrative element structurally, consistent to the end and a kind of repetition. You do that in other films, not with a couch, but certain repetitions, organizing the film. A line in the film is “She couldn’t portray other’s lives as well as her own.” Yours aren’t what I’d call “personal films.” Yet that line describes much about how you use your life story in your work.

YR: It’s funny. I also fictionalized details of my life, I was always mixing things up. I was never a purist, although I’m often called a minimalist. For instance, with Steve Paxton’s walking and my running in dance, I used heroic music. I know of no better term than “radical juxtaposition” to describe what I was doing; it was a way of keeping the audience on their toes, disrupting their assumptions about what they were going to see.

LT: You wanted to disrupt Hollywood conventions, but watching the relationship between this heterosexual couple who have broken up turns disturbing. It’s not Method acting. They’re delivering their lines. But what’s going on between them…

YR: The emotion is in the voiceover; you never see it expressed by the performers. They aren’t actors, that’s why I call them performers.

LT: There’s a scene in which Valda Setterfield and the man with the dark hair­–

YR: Fernando Torm. He’s against the wall. And she’s just done her solo dance.

LT: He’s unaffected by it.

YR: He’s not appreciative.

LT: He says to her, “Why did you do that dance?”

YR: “I’ve seen it before.” He’s bored with it. She turns to the camera very displeased with his reaction. There are very few moments like that.

LT: Those are enough for viewers to experience her dissatisfaction in the relationship.

YR: And to deal with them as characters.

LT: Right. I think Film About a Woman Who... is one of your best-loved films.

YR: Really?

LT: Yes. It is startling, as was Lives Of Performers, but Film About a Woman Who... is even more startling because it’s so complex in terms of all the relationships that you consider. In one scene, they’re sitting on the couch, talking about sexual fantasies; then Renfru Neff is undressed and stands naked in front of the camera and them.

YR: The camera slowly moves in, while Dempster Leech pulls down her underpants.

LT: Yes, and very surprising. I wonder how you feel about that now.

YR: It was kind of a test. Obviously perverse. The camera is moving slowly toward her pubic area.

LT: Sort of like Wavelength (1967).

YR: It was based on Wavelength! Absolutely. And the movement. Leech is looking at the camera as he’s doing this. It is repellent; it’s hard to watch.

LT: They’ve been talking about sexual fantasies, so her undressing becomes an enacted sexual fantasy. Somebody’s sexual fantasy, or perhaps Renfru’s.

YR: One more thing about that and what I imposed upon her character: they’re undressing her; she’s fully dressed. She’s sitting, but she’s directing them. She’s in charge: “Take off my shoe,” “Take off this….”

LT: Do we hear that?

YR: You don’t hear it. She gestures. She knows she’s going to be disrobed, but she directs he procedure the way she wants.

LT: It’s almost like a rape fantasy.

YR: Yeah, yeah.

LT: Your first two films are very much about sex. About fucking. One line is, “He’ll never want to screw me again.”

YR: Did I say fuck or screw?

LT: Screw. In the first two films especially, but then on into Kristina Talking Pictures (1976), the idea of disappointment in love is powerful, and the unknowingness of another’s feelings. A central question in them is, Where does love go? Why does it end? The characters cannot accept the end­–

YR: Or that the love doesn’t move into something else. I guess that was about my early relationships, which did end, some more abruptly than others. The main one was with Robert Morris, the most traumatic and complicated.

kristina taking pictures

Kristina Talking Pictures (1976)

LT: Kristina Talking Pictures seems about you not being a dancer/ choreographer anymore. There’s some dance in it, because she’s a lion tamer. You use footage of Siegfried and Roy, the Las Vegas act who trained wild animals to perform. Watching that scene the first time, I didn’t think about the animals being mistreated. Now, as he uses the whip—not necessarily to hit them, but near them. It was disturbing….

YR: About their mistreatment even in zoos, yeah.

LT: A line in Kristina Talking Pictures leads on to your next films. You say that external events are the source of raw material for their art. That statement augurs the making of Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1980).

YR: Which dealt with more specific historical events.

LT: It’s an extraordinary film. You had spent time in Berlin.

YR: I spent a year there, because I got a DAAD [residency].

LT: This is a great shift in your work. You’re dealing with the history of Germany from, it starts about 1950, and moves into the rise of Baader-Meinhof. First, titles appear on the screen quoting different German laws enacted post-war. The first, any formation of a group was destructive, arising from–

YR: –a reaction to the Third Reich and the Nazis. It persisted, the laws becoming more stringent and strict, and anti-Communist, then these so-called terrorists began to be active.

LT: The laws increasingly espoused anti-left positions.

YR: Which is interesting, how the right wing evolved after World War II. The Nazis were, supposedly, gone, although they were in government positions.

LT: The German government enacted laws against groups, fearing the rise of a new Nazi movement, but it’s a double-edged sword because it makes any opposition illegal. Journeys from Berlin is a film about justice, how it is or isn’t applied. Using your radical juxtaposition strategy, there’s an analysand, Annette Michelson, talking to an analyst, addressing the psyche and political activism.

YR: She’s one of the through lines. That relationship…

LT: It was almost half the film.

YR: In increments, she’s leading up to her suicide attempt, which is not that clear, but she’s confessing how she wanted to end her life. This was autobiographical. Onscreen, behind her, a rowboat gets dragged in, and a huge staircase. These symbolic objects are dealt with as the background to her thoughts. The analyst is played by three different people: an older man, a young boy, and finally, a historian friend of mine, Ilona Halberstadt.

LT: What she is saying to the analyst is…

YR: It’s a kind of stream of consciousness. Non-sequiturs that don’t always make sense. It’s deliberately confounding, in the way that dreams are confounding. I chose Annette because I knew she could memorize all the material. And she did it.

LT: She’s compelling.

YR: People had very different reactions to her and to that character.

LT: Also compelling, her gestures….

YR: Oh. But I directed her. She was a very gestural person, always using her hands. She complained to me constantly about how I restricted her natural impulses to make gestures. They’re much fewer than what she would normally do in conversation.

LT: And that she could restrain herself.

YR: It was a hard role. I gave her a lot of attention. We were in rehearsal for a year or so. Off and on. She really committed herself to this.

Journey's From Berlin

Journeys From Berlin/1971 (1980)

LT: You employ different cinematic strategies in Journeys. The camera looks out a few windows.

YR: You see the streetlights through the distant windows and the doors of a London gallery.

LT: I don’t remember that in any previous films?

YR: I’m reminded of a sequence in Journeys shot while I was in Berlin: a series of jump cuts during which a man and a woman (Cynthia Beatt and Antonio Skármeta) walk back and forth outside of a baroque church.

LT: Much of that film is about Baader-Meinhof; in voiceover a woman and a man (played by Amy Taubin and Vito Acconci) discuss acts of violence.

YR: Which is always kind of posed as two contradictory enterprises. The self-absorption of the Annette character, and the external acting out of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof.

LT: They’re in a domestic relationship, and making dinner.

YR: Amy Taubin reads long passages from Emma Goldman. They discuss the personal versus the political: does the personal undermine or justify acts of rebellion? Which was always important to me, in the case of the particular route that these so-called radicals took to undermine what they felt was that authoritarian regime. I had my doubts about its efficacy. I think that’s what gets across; it’s the questioning of violence.

LT: Now The Man Who Envied Women (1985) is a unique film in your oeuvre. It comes after Journeys, and it’s very much an American film. This film emphasizes the use of theory. It starts out with an intellectual, played by Bill Raymond.

YR: He’s also a womanizer.

LT: Yet he speaks as if he were a feminist. I consider this film a polemic.

YR: He lectures in overriding theoretical abstractions. I quoted someone we both know—I don’t mean to criticize him; I won’t mention his name—I took his writing verbatim. But it’s very abstract. I put it all in the mouth of my character, and also at the head of this classroom where half of the students are falling asleep or bored! I was addressing [the experience of] coming up against this theoretical wall that I didn’t know what to do with. I concentrated on his marital defections, and his intellectual abstruseness. So he’s not a very likable character. The actor complained about this a bit, but he went along.

LT: Again, it’s unique in your filmography.

YR: My relationship to theory, maybe? I’m not a theorist. I don’t consider myself an intellectual, or well-educated, or well-read.

LT: You are an intellectual because an intellectual is somebody who reads and writes and thinks.

YR: But I have no formal education to speak of.

man who envied woman

The Man Who Envied Women (1985)

LT: So you’re an autodidact, many intellectuals are. Privilege (1990) is your next film. It’s an amazing film. You took on issues that few white people…

YR: I nearly quit in the middle of writing that script. I thought seriously about going back to school. I felt so unequipped to deal with racism, white racism, but I persisted.

LT: There are many discomforting, disturbing incidents and scenes. A white woman is confronting a Hispanic or Puerto Rican man who has entered through her bedroom window, as if to rape her. And they have a discussion about this. In that moment, he is given a speaking role, which sets up a critical approach to her response, and goes against expectations, and later there is a wonderful Black actor–

YR: Novella Nelson. She had a very challenging text; I can’t remember all of the sources but she had to memorize some pretty difficult material as she lies on a couch talking about racism.

LT: The uncertainty you felt in making the film is also in the film. Privilege isn’t a harangue, a polemic, it questions white people’s assumptions and behavior toward others, critically.

YR: At the time, a Black acquaintance was very disappointed that the film did not cause as much discussion after it came out. She thought it was important, but it kind of disappeared…

LT: Because white people didn’t, still don’t, want to talk about their racism. There’s a good reason why Black people are sick of hearing about white people’s guilt.

YR: And with good reason. Do something, stop yakking.

LT: And this was 1990, I remember the atmosphere and think you were courageous to have made this film. I’m thinking also of the Hispanic woman in a convertible, costumed as a stereotype, with bananas on her head.

YR: Right, “Carmen Miranda.”

LT: It’s a serious and complex film about racism, and stereotypes. The Black characters challenge the white ones. In this different moment, maybe when it’s shown in Metrograph in February...

YR: Yes, I hope it will have a different impact.

LT: It might spark a serious discussion....

YR: But will Black people come to see it? The postmodern dance audience is mostly white. What is to be done? White people like you and me continue talking about the situation. The economic disparities are worse, worse than ever.

LT: White people have to look at themselves honestly, critically—if they can, if we can.

YR: And have to change the white people in power.

LT: MURDER and Murder is your last feature film. It is the closest and most direct about your personal life. You had just had breast cancer, and Martha [Gever] and you had gotten together.

YR: The dominant relationship in the film is between the two women, Mildred and Doris. Mildred is an academic, and Doris a performance artist.

LT: The film starts unusually, a long shot at the beach, the ocean’s in the distance, and the camera moves forward to reveal–

YR: Jennie, an older woman, who is Doris’s deceased mother, and a young version of Mildred. They are the ghosts who are witnesses within the film, witnesses to the current relationship.

LT: They appear throughout the film. I don’t think you had ever done anything like this before in your films. How do you see their importance?

YR: The are the commentators, invisible to the main characters, hanging out, arguing, getting bored, etc.

LT: At the beginning of our conversation, I asserted that your films are in some sense always about relationships. In MURDER and murder, you show the women desiring each other, living together. They discuss their difficulties with each other. They argue, worry whether their relationship will...

YR: …endure.

LT: There’s a unique scene in which Mildred and Doris are in an actual boxing ring, with gloves on, fighting. The struggle is about their relationship. They box, but in the clinches each expresses her annoyances such as: “At night you’re always dragging the covers off of me, making me freeze.”

YR: The mock boxing match also has a female referee, and there are cancer statistics printed on the canvas-covered floor.

LT: Yes, Doris’s cancer enters the picture, literally. And you, the actual Yvonne, are in the bleachers watching.

YR: Yes, right. Later I’m in a tuxedo that is cut away to reveal my actual mastectomy scar.

LT: It’s shocking, at first, but you keep your chest exposed. That was bold, facing an audience, but also, I thought, the action represented your tendency to exhibit.

YR: I’m an exhibitionist, Lynne, you know that; I mean, that’s partly why I became a dancer.

LT: Did you know yourself as a child to be an exhibitionist?

YR: I didn’t know anything about myself as a child! [Laughs]

LT: But did you do exhibitionistic stuff when you were a kid?

YR: What I did was shoot off my mouth in my white, working-class, Protestant neighborhood about my anarchist atheist parents, and how I didn’t believe in God. And the neighborhood kids put me on trial. “How can you say there’s no God? He just is.” I said, “Well where’s the proof?” [Laughs] Put an end to that discussion.

LT: Doris resists talking about her cancer with Mildred. Mildred feels she can’t help her, is being shut out. The disease affects their relationship deeply.

YR: But ultimately it also brings them together in the scene in which Doris falls sobbing into Mildred’s comforting arms.

LT: Cancer becomes a major concern in the film, way beyond its effect on the couple. Statistics appear often, especially in the last third of the film.

YR: Reflecting my research at the time.

LT: After this, you stopped making films. Can you say why?

YR: They were getting more expensive; each film cost twice as much as the previous one, and I wasn’t about to accommodate myself to more narrative conventions. But even more consequential was the fact, from the very beginning, I didn’t enjoy the production process. I’m a technophobe, I was never comfortable waiting around for the lights to be reset, never became familiar with camera settings; also being the “boss” of so many technicians and assistants was burdensome. I got my own back in the editing room, alone with the Steenbeck! After writing poetry for the next couple of years, I returned to dance via the invitation from Mikhail Baryshnikov.

LT: How did that happen?

YR: This was 1999 or 2000. Baryshnikov calls up; I like to say he said, “This is Misha Baryshnikov,” and I said, “Who?” Anyway, he asked me to “think about it.” I said, “I don’t have to think about it, I accept.” Baryshnikov’s invitation offered total relief and pleasure!

Lynne Tillman’s most recent work is MOTHERCARE, a book-length autobiographical essay about the 11 years she and her sisters took care of their sick mother. Next, a book of her selected stories from Soft Skull Press in 2024.

murder and murder

MURDER and Murder (1996)